Ann Coulter’s appearance at the Berkeley was cancelled in response to threats made by anarchist groups. While some conservatives argue that concerns about security should often trump concerns about rights (such as infringing on religious liberty or privacy to “make us safer”), two conservative organizations have started a lawsuit against the university. The claim that the school is endeavoring “to restrict conservative speech” on campus. Since Berkeley is a public school, the First Amendment does apply and hence the case can make an appeal to this constitutional right. While well-paid lawyers will hash out the legal matters, this does raise an interesting moral concern.
As I have shown in numerous other essays, I hold to a view of freedom of expression that goes far beyond the limited legal protection laid out in the First Amendment. I also hold to the freedom of consumption—that people have a right to, for example, hear whatever views they wish to hear. As such, Coulter has a right to express herself and the student organizations have the right to invite her so they can listen to whatever wicked or foolish things she might elect to spew forth.
Like many classic liberals, my go-to justification of these liberties is based on J.S. Mill’s arguments. The gist is that allowing people the liberty of expression and the liberty of consumption creates more happiness than restricting these liberties. Being a fan of natural rights, I also find the idea that these rights have additional grounding beyond mere utility appealing. I do, however, admit that such rights are certainly metaphysically suspect and difficult to properly ground in reality. In short, while I think that Coulter will say nothing worth hearing, she has every right to speak before the student groups that invited her.
I should note that my view of Coulter is not based on any notion that conservative political theory lacks merit; it is based on my view that she lacks merit. Unfortunately, thoughtful conservative political theorists seem to be out of vogue. This is unfortunate; the past saw many excellent conservative thinkers and they made significant contributions to political and philosophical thought. These days, there seem to be mostly just empty pundits spewing emptiness on Fox News. Or, worse, racists and sexists purporting to represent conservative thought. Then again, perhaps abandoning the intellectual aspects of politics was a smart tactical move: the left might have its intellectuals, but the right holds the power in most states. But, back to the matter at hand.
While I do accept the rights of expression and consumption, these rights are not absolute. If the justification for rights and liberties is taken to be utilitarian, then these rights can be limited on the same grounds. As such, if the harm created by allowing the freedoms of expression and consumption would create more harm, then they can be justly limited. The stock example is, of course, the restriction on people yelling “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.
If a natural rights view is accepted, the restriction of a right can be justified by appealing to other rights. In the case of speech, the right to life would warrant preventing people from yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. The challenge is, of course, working out a hierarchy of rights. However, it does seem reasonable to make the right to life a rather important right, if only because being alive is generally a necessary condition for the other rights.
If having a person speak could put that person and others in danger, then this can justify postponing a speech until proper security arrangements can be made or even cancelling it if such arrangements cannot be made. This can be done by appealing to a utilitarian justification or by arguing that the right not to be harmed trumps the rights of free expression and free consumption. This is analogous to other cases in which liberty must be weighed against safety.
This does lead to the obvious concern that free expression and free consumption could thus be thwarted simply by threatening violence; thus giving individuals and groups willing to make threats considerable powers of censorship. One limiting factor is that making such threats is a crime. Unfortunately, the internet provides so many anonymous ways of making threats that the police face considerable challenge in dealing with them.
Deciding how to respond to credible threats of violence requires weighing the rights of expression and consumption against the harms that are likely to arise. As a general principle, it seems reasonable to accept that a speech should be postponed in the face of a credible threat that cannot be addressed in time. Such a credible threat should be dealt with by law enforcement and then the speech can be made. If the threat can be addressed so that an acceptable level of public safety is possible (within the available budget), then the speech should proceed normally. This approach can be easily justified on utilitarian grounds: people are kept reasonably safe while at the same time threats are prevented from becoming an effective tool of censorship. This does require that the state take such threats seriously and take appropriate action.
There is, of course, also the moral responsibility of those who make such threats: they are wrong to do this. If they do not like, for example, Coulter’s views, they should ask a campus group to invite them to speak out against her views on campus.